Root Beer Rag
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|"Root Beer Rag"|
Label to the US single release as B-side of "Big Shot"
|Single by Billy Joel|
|from the album Streetlife Serenade|
|A-side||"Big Shot" (US)
"Until the Night" (UK)
"Honesty" (Japan & others)
|Released||October 11, 1974 (album)
|Recorded||Devonshire Sound, North Hollywood, CA|
"Root Beer Rag" is a song from Billy Joel's 1974 album Streetlife Serenade. An instrumental track in a very fast ragtime style, it was later released as the B-side of several singles from Joel's 52nd Street album, including "Big Shot" in the US, "Until the Night" in the UK, and "Honesty" in Japan and some European countries. A live version was included with the DVD that was part of the 30th anniversary re-release of The Stranger.
The song is in C major and is one of three studio instrumentals that Joel has released. Joel has played the song in concert frequently over the years, stating that he uses it as "a kind of instrumental palate cleanser." He further stated that it requires his "full attention as the notes spill out."
Author Ken Bielen describes "Root Beer Rag" as a fast ragtime piano work. Joel biographer Hank Bordowitz describes the song as "homebrewed ragtime". Music critic Mark Bego describes it as Joel "doing his best Scott Joplin impersonation" and "his one recorded ragtime number."
In response to an audience question about the song's origin during one of Joel's musical lectures, he gave the following explanation:
I got my first Moog Synthesizer. This was in the mid 70s and I got my first Moog and I put it on every record. I said 'I have to write an instrumental where I can use this Moog Synthesizer. It kinda turned me off the synthesizers forever after. That's why I wrote that song. Just purely out of stupid self-indulgence.
However, Joel did feature synthesizers on subsequent albums, including Turnstiles (1976), The Stranger (1977) - as credited in the liner notes and there is a Mellotron on "She's Always a Woman" - Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982), The Bridge (1986), Storm Front (1989) and River of Dreams (1993).
Other instruments include a pedal steel guitar and drums, the latter of which are played with drum brushes. A figure used in the beginning and then throughout the song is similar to one that Joel would use the introductions of later songs, including "Prelude/Angry Young Man."
AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the song "admittedly enjoyable" and suggests that it was influenced by the movie The Sting and that movie's Scott Joplin-based soundtrack. Bego praises Joel's "stellar" piano work noting "lightning fast keyboard work." However, Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden describes it as "nothing more than filler."
In popular culture
The original version by Joel was used as the theme music to a 1980s sports program in New Zealand broadcast by TV One. It was also used in the 1980s on Radio Bayern 3 in Germany for the Saturday and Sunday late morning show called Musikbox. Also, in Canada during the 1970s and 1980s, a portion of it was used as one of the many musical "bumpers" between segments on CBC Radio One's long-running news interview show, "As It Happens".
"Root Beer Rag" was also the name of a Billy Joel newsletter (now defunct) published in the late 1970s to late 1980s.
In 2014, the song was featured in the documentary film about Roger Ebert, Life Itself (Root Beer Rag was used as the opening theme song on the first iteration of Siskel & Ebert (known as Coming Soon at The Movies) in 1975 which only aired on public television in Chicago.)
Notable cover versions
- The German a cappella group Wise Guys recorded a notable cover version of the song.
- Richard Clayderman released a cover of the song in 1983.
- Silvan Zingg included the song on his 2005 album Boogie Woogie Trilogy.
- Rich Holly's percussion ensemble arrangement with soloist Jeff Senley on the O-Zone Percussion Group's Whiplash album.
- Dagmar Krug released a single of "Root Beer Rag" as a tribute to Joel in 2012.
- Johnny Lingo's 2010 album Somewhere To Go features the song.
- Schruers, Fred (2014). Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. Crown Archetype. p. 106. ISBN 9780804140201.
- Bielen, K. (2011). The Words and Music of Billy Joel. ABC-CLIO. p. 31. ISBN 9780313380167.
- Bordowitz, H. (2006). Billy Joel: The Life & Times of an Angry Young Man. Random House. p. 79. ISBN 9780823082483.
- Bego, Mark (2007). Billy Joel: The Biography. Thunder's Mouth Press. p. 80. ISBN 9781560259893.
- Joel, Billy. An Evening of Questions & Answers and Perhaps a Few Songs. Video.
- Erlewine, S.T. "Streetlife Serenade". Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-03-28.
- Holden, Stephen (December 5, 1974). "Streetlight Serenade". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2016-04-24.
- on YouTube
- [All covers referenced from iTunes Store; retrieved 16.2.13]